The Infamous Stringdusters’ website includes what might seem like a bold statement from the group. It says simply: “The Future of Bluegrass.”
In talking to Andy Hall, the group’s dobro player, it’s clear the statement isn’t meant to necessarily say the Infamous Stringdusters see themselves as the world’s premier bluegrass group – although the band probably belongs in that conversation – or to slight the many other talented acts on the scene.
But “The Future of Bluegrass” does say something about what the group is trying to accomplish within its genre. While certainly rooted in traditional bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters are seeking to push the bluegrass form forward. And Hall sees three distinct areas where a forward-looking approach to their music has come into play over the group’s decade-long existence.
“I think a lot of it comes from the songwriting,” he said in a mid-January phone interview. “Over time, we’ve gone from being a more traditional bluegrass band to, I think, (being) more wide open. And the songs really guide it. I think what happens is most of us came from non-bluegrass backgrounds originally. So I think when you’re first starting into bluegrass and you’re learning how to play it, you kind of narrow your field of your influences and you stick to sort of the bluegrass influences. As we’ve grown, I feel like we’ve actually let more of our original influences, whether that be from rock or blues or jam band, come out. … I think the writing guides us as far as our look to the future.”
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A second way the group is stretching musically is with its arrangements and the roles of their individual instruments within its songs.
“When you learn bluegrass, you learn that each instrument has a specific role that it does,” Hall said. “We want to use that (bluegrass template) when we want to. But we also try to dismantle it. And we take the time when we’re arranging songs to come up with new ways to play a rhythm or use our instruments in ways they’re not traditionally used, like dobro as a rhythm instrument, or whatever.”
Hall also feels the Infamous Stringdusters, consisting of Travis Book (bass), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle) and Chris Pandolfi (banjo), are trying to redefine the concert experience, which is another part of moving the genre forward.
“I think our look to the future is not necessarily just a musical one. It’s the way we engage with fans and put on a live show,” he said. “We’re trying to create a community of people who are caring and community-oriented and socially oriented.”
The group’s newly released sixth studio album, “Ladies & Gentlemen,” has a dozen songs written and played by the Infamous Stringdusters, 11 of which feature a different female artist on lead vocals. It may well be the best example yet of the group’s boundary-stretching approach to bluegrass.
“You never know how a record is going to come out or how a project is going to come out, and it’s just fun to experiment,” Hall said. “That’s where, if you quit experimenting and being creative, you’re sunk.”
Taking the “Ladies & Gentlemen” material on the road offers a new way for the Infamous Stringdusters to grow as a band. Nicki Bluhm will join the group for most of the spring/summer dates and will handle the female vocals on the “Ladies & Gentlemen” material. Della Mae will appear on some dates as well, and that group’s lead singer, Celia Woodsmith, figures to also contribute vocals.
“We’re excited,” Hall said. “It’s not going to be a huge departure, but it will be a little bit different for us and for the fans. And that’s part of the idea with this whole record and tour is something a little unique and different.”